Thoughts out of season: On Santa Claus

What if the purpose of Santa Claus is to get children used to the idea of complicity with a lie? Children who discover Santa Claus’s non-existence are normally exhorted to keep that truth from younger children. If they obey, they gain the satisfaction of joining the adult world in some small way. If they disobey, they will risk the guilt of depriving someone of enjoyment — truth hurts. Either way, the gap between the “official position” and private opinions opens up, and a whole lot of ideological effort is expended to remind us how important it is to make sure the “official position” can still function. Indeed, many Christmas movies even model a kind of “second naïveté” about the Santa Claus myth, when they’re not presenting it as openly true (and hence implicitly calling into question the origins and motivations of the debunking stance). Why embrace the truth? Isn’t it more magical and special to hang on to the implausible lie? Shouldn’t we admire and imitate the naive trust of children, instead of being so caught up with what’s “true” or “real”?

In short, Santa Claus is not merely ideology at its very purest — it’s about ideology at its very purest. Its purpose is to induct children into the very order of ideology.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts out of season: On Santa Claus

  1. You can say the same thing about fiction in general. But adults don’t go around belaboring the obvious — that all fiction is a lie — for the same reason that they hide the “truth” about Santa Claus from children. It’s not ideology; it’s just not being an asshole. After all, it is also precisely because of the latter that we hate spoilers.

  2. I see what you’re saying, and I certainly don’t want to be heard as claiming that enjoying fiction is always or primarily “ideology at its very purest” — but I still think that Santa Claus is a special case in many ways.

  3. I never told my kids that there was a santa claus. That just meant I had to tell my kids to not tell other kids that there was no santa.

  4. You describe perfectly the scenario that I’ve very recently been through with my eldest (probably one of the easier times of year to work through this), right down to the conversation about keeping the truth from younger siblings and children and her also stating something very close to feeling that she had joined the adult world. I’ve always felt very ambivalent about the whole affair and had come to a similar view about it teaching complicity in a lie (albeit an enchanting one). But the induction into ideology in its purest form is thought provoking.

    A corollary of this is that there is what is likely a very common parental interest with respect to precisely when their children will “get it” and display sufficient critical skills to puncture the lie. That is, parents too may view it as a transition into adulthood: “well done, you can now see through that pack of lies we told you; now, are you clever enough to see why we did it?” Plus there is the problem of how far to maintain the deception with ever more sophisticated fabrications and secondary lies in the face of very reasonable and increasingly difficult questions (“What about the melting arctic?” “How can the presents all be delivered in one-night?” “How does Santa know what I’ve done?” “Does he know what I thought?” [obviously important philosophical questions here about whether Santa is a Kantian or a consequentialist with regard to the construction of the naughty list] ). How much magical-thinking does one deploy before one throws up one’s hands and say: “OK, you got me!”). The subsequent analytic deconstruction of the whole ideological house of cards, though, is absolutely fascinating and is still on-going in my case (“So, did you and mummy do this?”, “What about X, Y and Z? Do they exist too?” and, my absolute favourite, “Did you spend all the money on those presents?” [my daughter was concerned by how much more she would need to spend on her own future children without the Santa subsidy]).

  5. I remember a similar discussion when I was in seminary, and an African-American member of the class said that she never told her children about Santa Claus because she didn’t want them thinking that some old white man brought their presents — covering-up that she bought them what little she could afford from her hard work.

  6. Isn’t zizek’s reading of Santa that children just cynically play along for the sake of presents? This maybe says more about the cynicism of consumerist ideology. Everyone knows its bullshit, but they also want an xbox, so screw it, sign me up.

  7. I have often considered how the Santa mythology creates a critical context for children to delimit the power of mythology, that if it’s not about material goods, it’s ‘just a story,’ ‘just a myth.’

  8. My adult children still believe in Santa Claus, as do I. They realized early on that the important question is not “Is there a Santa Claus?” but rather, “Who is Santa Claus? (or, more precisely, what is the phenomenon that we refer to when we use the signifier “Santa Claus?” The stories about a guy in a red suit living at the North Pole are correctly labeled mythology. Santa’s existence is not. I’m pleased that they have grown to exemplify unconditional generosity very well. – Dr. JD Donovan

  9. Eric it’s a bit more that they want to convince their parents that they’re more innocent than they actually are. They know they’ll get presents either way.

    As a kid, I convinced myself that I believed in Santa Clause longer than I actually did. It’s an odd transition.

  10. “You can say the same thing about fiction in general.”

    We mostly don’t put fiction in general over on people, though, or when we do, we call it lying.

  11. As a child I learned about Santa Claus and Jesus Christ except that at some point I was suppose to realize the Santa Claus was only a mythical spirit while Jesus Christ was “real.” I know people who still confuse the story of Pinnochio in the whale with Jonah and his big fish. Fortunately children tend to be very intellectual.
    I was baptized into the Baptist church because I wanted to know what the soul is–and how could I possibly know what it is if it is lost. Eventually I was kicked out of the church for pushing the question.

  12. We teach our children, as readers of fiction, to enjoy the alternate. (Or at least, all true Scotsmen do; it’s also what we punish as “escapism” when we denigrate fiction.) The transition to maturity in fiction-reading tends to be expressed in preference for more thorough construction, an alternate that is less easily “seen through,” more compelling, more capable of our inhabitance. Storytelling is not fundamentally lying.

    The form of the Santa-fiction is something else. It is a story we tell about how things really are. And it is a false story, and we know it is false. At best, we wish it to be true, or we wish some world in which the moral value is true. It is a story that, at best, we tell to influence the world in a certain direction. But that’s just a noble, gaseous phrasing of induction into ideology. It’s what you’d expect someone to say who believes the ideology.

    A third kind of thing occurs to me, and that is the story that we tell because—though false in important ways—it is true in just enough ways to be useful. Like the three-dimensional world. We do this all the time in the sciences. It is the fiction that actually serves as a usable map of reality at some scale.

  13. The fact that the “best” lies involve storytelling in order to make a world in which the basic falsehood is not transparent does not make storytelling the problem. Abusus non tollit usum.

  14. Most storytelling does not involve material results in the real world, such as an empty plate of cookies and a tree full of presents. That’s what makes me think that it’s a bit of a dodge just to refer to it as storytelling.

  15. Oh, I agree. Santa is no mere fiction. There are stories we tell about versions of these characters, and if it were only that, there would be no difference between “Santa isn’t real” and “Gandalf isn’t real”—except that one is historical fiction, and one is fantasy, by genre. And it’s possible for “Santa” to exist at the level of cosplay, in full acknowledgment that the shtick is shtick and we just like it enough to play through the story when the opportunity arises. That would be elevating the storytelling without turning fiction into falsehood. Everyone knows it’s fiction, at every point, even small children who are most willing to live into the stories they enjoy. The seasonal re-enactment of historical fiction is a classic American pastime, whether for Santa or Jesus at Christmas, or for war memorials. Of course, there’s a line there; we say, as the author of Luke–Acts says, that this is a “really true story” because it’s based on history as we have been told it, and we’ve done diligence to make a good and faithful fiction out of it. Even if what we enact isn’t true, it’s not a lie. It is storytelling for the sake of memory.

    But you’re right: that’s not what typically happens with the Santa-fiction. There’s a line. And that line is intent to deceive. But I don’t think it can be drawn on the basis of how much real-world material gets involved in the stage dressing. There we get into the morality of theatrics. Verisimilitude can deceive, and good theatrics are meant to be good enough that the fiction holds—so that if you just walked into the middle of it without seeing what’s going on behind the scenes, you might be deceived. At that level, is it immoral that “Santa” is a theatrical production? Is it immoral not to explicitly puncture the fabric of verisimilitude, and even to ask the viewer to uphold it for others?

    Now I’m starting to wonder where the line is, myself…

  16. Santa Claus as fiction is like The War of the Worlds broadcast over the radio as fiction. Or yelling fire in a movie theatre as fiction. In other words, not just fiction.

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